Somewhere, either in Vegas or online, you can probably make some sort of Jonathan Sanchez/Scott Kazmir-related prop bet. Who will pitch more innings? Who will have more wins? That sort of thing. Which is funny, because three months ago most of us figured they would be teammates on the Bismarck Beekeepers or some such. Instead, they're both in honest-to-goodness major-league rotations. The teams had all winter to find a fifth starter, and that's who they came up with.
And who knows? Maybe that's a good thing. The point of this article isn't to poke fun at the Pirates for starting Sanchez -- who really does have some measure of upside, I promise! -- but instead to cobble together an All-Wait-He's-Starting? team.
There are 30 teams. Some of them have made amusing decisions. Some of them have made rational-yet-unexpected decisions. Let's see if we can't make a starting lineup and rotation out of the most surprising names with at least a part-time gig.
Catcher - The Yankees
Kinda tired of this one by now, but that doesn't mean it isn't still surprising that the Yankees -- the Yankees -- didn't feel like paying for anyone more expensive than Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. And we're not just talking about free agents, here. The Yankees also haven't traded for someone like Ramon Hernandez or Nick Hundley. They haven't been creative. They haven't been proactive. They haven't been reactive. They let the catching world revolve around them.
Maybe, just maybe, the Yankees really, really like Cervelli and Stewart defensively, with internal metrics that suggest something different from the good-not-great rankings we have access to. If so, bully for them. They've earned some benefit of the doubt when it comes to personnel decisions. But I'm thinking it's not that, at least not completely.
First base - James Loney, Rays
If at all possible, I don't want to focus too much on injury replacements. It's tempting to make fun of that wild Juan Rivera/Lyle Overbay platoon, though, as it's certainly the most Dave Littlefield first-base arrangement in the majors right now.
But for as progressive and brainy as the Rays are … really? James Loney? This is like Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman's wife winking at each other in The Prestige before they try an unreasonably difficult knot. We get it. You're good. But wasn't there a more efficient way to prove that? Since Loney became a full-time player in 2008, here are his wins above replacement according to Baseball Reference: 1, 2, 0, 2, -1. Maybe the Rays see an easily correctable flaw in his swing, or an obvious hitch in his get-along. But if the upside is as a barely average first baseman, it isn't worth the downside as a total drag on an offense.
Second base - Miguel Tejada, Royals
Tejada is platooning, most likely, but the best part is that if it's not him, platoon-mate Chris Getz is the runner-up in this category. The Royals have been mostly hilarious with their second basemen since Frank White retired.
Quick, name the best Royals second baseman since White retired, quick!
The answer is Jose Offerman in 1998, followed by a couple of nice seasons from Mark Grudzielanek. But there's also been Carlos Febles, Luis Alicea, Luis Ordaz, Desi Relaford, Ruben Gotay, Tony Graffanino, Esteban German … goodness.
There was also Alberto Callaspo, who is kind of good, and I was about to make fun of them for letting him get away, but the Royals got Will Smith back, and Smith is an interesting young pitcher, at least.
And now, Miguel Tejada, who has played exactly four games at second base in his career, was out of baseball last year, is 39, and was horrible the last two seasons he did play. Other than that …
Shortstop - Ronny Cedeno, Astros
For three years the Pittsburgh Pirates watched Cedeno play short. He was the very definition of replacement player. The Pirates said, "Thanks, but no thanks; you're not what the Pirates are looking for," and sent him on his way.
The St. Louis Cardinals had him in camp this year, and after Rafael Furcal disintegrated again, they were desperate for a shortstop solution. The only other option was Pete Kozma, who has been bullied by Triple-A pitchers for the last two years. The Cardinals, knowing the alternatives, still chose to release Cedeno.
What I'm getting at is this: How bad does Tyler Greene feel right now? When the Astros tell you that Ronny Cedeno is the better option … that's kind of like a message spelled out in a constellation, no?
Third base - Placido Polanco, Marlins
Rarely do declines come this linear, this easy to follow. In 2007, Polanco was great. In 2008, he was really good. So the progression went until he was kind of bad in 2011, and pretty awful in 2012. He isn't going to get better a year older and in a bigger ballpark.
These kinds of roster choices always fascinate me. What is the upside for the Marlins? A good season from Polanco that ends with a deadline deal in their favor. But there has to be a minor-league free agent worth trying out instead, on the off chance they turn into something of value. Call it the Justin Ruggiano principle, if you will.
I'll make a bold claim on this one: It would make more sense for the Marlins to start … Brandon Wood. No, no, I wrote it, and I can't take it back now. It would make more sense for the Marlins to platoon Wood and Andy Marte.
Left field - Brennan Boesch/Vernon Wells, Yankees
Okay, this one is cheating because it's due to an injury, but look at those two names together. By just about any metric in the world, including the ol' eyeball test, Boesch was one of baseball's worst defensive outfielders last year. He had a career .319 on-base percentage in the minors, which suggested that his 2011 season was a fluke, not a true awakening. According to Baseball Reference, he was the fourth-worst player in baseball last year.
When you list two outfielders, and one of them is Vernon Wells, the other one needs to be a real special player to take the attention off Wells.
Prediction for the two until Curtis Granderson gets back: .280/.330/.560 with 11 combined homers. Yankees, man.
Center field - Aaron Hicks, Twins
Tough competition here. For example, the Astros are starting Justin Maxwell, a 29-year-old who had chronic contact problems in the minors, but also hit 18 homers in 315 at-bats for them last year and played solid defense. What are they supposed to do? Same thing goes with the Marlins and Justin Ruggiano, who's 31 soon, and also has a long, relatively uninspiring minor-league career. But he hit .313/.374/.535 in 288 at-bats last year. It's probably not going to happen again, but if it does, hellllloooo prospects at the deadline. So you can't blame either team for trying.
So let's go with Hicks, not because he's in the lol-what-are-the-Twins-thinking column, but because he's being aggressively promoted from the Eastern League. He's a top prospect (four straight years in the Baseball America top-100 list), and the added power he flashed last year is incredibly intriguing, so it's not a bad thing that the Twins are starting him. But if the topic is, "Wait, he's starting?", Hicks fits.
Right field - Marlon Byrd, Mets
Remember that part about Polanco, and how he incrementally got worse and worse? Not so for Byrd. There was a trap door under his career, and when he fell through it, it made a Dr. Seuss-like, onomatopoeical racket. So if you're going to take a chance on a player, Byrd isn't a bad one. It wasn't that long ago that he was a good two-way threat, and his bad season consists of 143 at-bats.
Byrd was 3-for-43 with the Cubs last year. That's always worth pointing out. That's hard to do.
Starting pitchers - Scott Kazmir, Indians; Jonathan Sanchez, Pirates; Nick Tepesch, Rangers; Jon Garland, Rockies; Philip Humber, Astros
I wrote about Kazmir target="new">here and Sanchez here, if you're interested. Both are recent dirigible accidents, but both are lefties with a measure of upside, so it's not that amazing that they've caught on with other teams.
Tepesch is something of a stunner, though. The #19 prospect in the Rangers' system according to Baseball America, Tepesch is 24, and he had decent-if-underwhelming statistics in Double-A last year. In 300 innings in the minors, he's allowed 27 homers, which isn't a very good rate, considering two-thirds of those innings were accumulated below Double-A.
Last year at this time, the Rangers had so, so many pitchers. Neftali Feliz was in the rotation, and they didn't have any room for Alexi Ogando, even if he was something of a known quantity. But an ample sprinkling of injuries later, and the Rangers have to rush up a guy like Tepesch. Pitching depth is the apple slice of the baseball world. It's appealing for a while, but it takes like five seconds to turn brown and gross.
Eh, that's probably too harsh for a young pitcher like Tepesch. Still, it's a surprise that he's pitching in the rotation so quickly, and he sure doesn't seem like the kind of pitcher who would immediately succeed in Arlington.
That brings us to Jon Garland, who was okay for the Diamondbacks in 2009. He allowed 20 home runs in 2010, pitching for the Padres in Petco Park. He allowed 10 in his last 90 innings for the Dodgers, a stretch that ended last year. He took a year off from baseball, and I'll assume that he was with the Giants in spirit, and that counts as his time with them for his game of NL West bingo. While he wasn't with the Giants, he still allowed a dozen homers. Now he's with the Rockies in Coors. Fantasy tip: Jon Garland is a risky player, depending on your league's scoring options.
Finally, Philip Humber, who in eight pro seasons has had two interesting seasons -- one when he was 23 and in Double-A, and another in the majors in 2011. Everything before, after, and in between suggests he isn't very good. A team like the Astros needs guys like him to absorb innings, lest their young pitchers absorb punishment and accrue service time, don't get me wrong. But it's still surprising to see his name in a major-league rotation in 2013.
Oh, and he's the third starter.
Closer - No one … yet
You're used to the Wilhelmsens and Cisheks now because you've had a couple months to get used to them. And right now, you're probably at least passingly familiar with the projected closers for all 30 teams. But a storm's a-comin', and by May, some weirdo you've never heard of will be racking up saves. You'll look up in the last week of the season, and the guy who picked up Chance Graffle on waivers is going to win your fantasy league. Is there really a reliever named Chance Graffle? Probably. You should draft him in the first few rounds, just in case.
Until then, though, the surprises are in the lineups and the major-league level. And I'll bet at least one of the players up there has a fantastic year. If it's weird that these guys are starting, don't worry. Baseball has more weird left to dish out.